Amid the haze of 2020’s agonies, the week the Puget Sound region had perhaps the worst air quality in the world ought to be a prominent, and guiding, memory.
Summer wildfires of the scale that smoked the region during that mid-September ordeal are highly likely to recur, and soon. Nearly half a million acres of Washington have burned, on average, in each of the last five years. As with postelection trauma and the enduring pandemic, 2021 is likely bringing no quick reprieve from this mess, either.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s June prediction gives a dire outlook, splashing red on both sides of the Cascades through September to show high risk. Even with a decent snowpack in place, the state Department of Natural Resources counted 223 fires in April, an all-time record. Blame a dry spring, in part. And take it as a warning to size up wildfire-season risks in your own yard and daily life.
“The last five out of six years have proven that the anomaly is when we don’t have a bad fire season,” DNR head Hilary Franz said in an interview.
The Legislature strongly invested in wildfire prevention and firefighting this spring, sending $125 million to DNR’s efforts. That’s an improvement that will be realized in years down the line, but this year’s gloomy outlook is locked in. DNR won’t see the money until July. Even then, its plans take time: training 100 new firefighters, buying two firefighting airplanes to arrive in 2022, and hastening the removal of small trees and controlled burns to cull potential kindling.
“We’ve got 1.25 million acres we’ve got to treat over the next 20 years,” Franz said, ticking through a long to-do list. “We’ve done 250,000 acres.”
It’s easy to argue the state should have put more resources forward sooner. Franz spent nearly three years asking the Legislature to take fire-prevention funding to historic heights. She rolled out a 20-year plan in 2017 for forest health in 2.7 million acres of state-managed land in Central and Eastern Washington. Forestry progress has been incremental and gradual over the years.
The good news is that forest management is a bipartisan cause. The long-range forest health bill this year by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, passed unanimously. House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, has pushed for better forestry since arriving in the Legislature. His first successful bill expanded DNR authority in 2012.
“It is just a hard thing for people to understand in Olympia, and it has a difficult time competing,” Wilcox said.
Some problems lie far beyond Washington’s reach. Smoke has blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest from raging fires in California and British Columbia in recent years. The federal government and Canada have each poured billions into regional solutions across the last decade.
Close to home, several utilities from the interstate Bonneville Power Administration to the 3,200-customer Okanogan County Electric Co-Op in Winthrop have committed to shutting off electric lines at risk from windy weather and vulnerable dry trees nearby. More throughout the state need to step up. That’s no small step. Blackouts for even a few hours can spoil food and disrupt life considerably. The alternative, though, can be far worse, and not just in dry Eastern Washington.
The Sumner Grade Fire last September in Pierce County burned for more than a week and scorched nearly 500 acres. Those fires sparked when winds blew a tree into live power lines. East Pierce Fire & Rescue Chief Jon Parkinson said the fires knocked out internet service, cellular towers and electricity for days for thousands of residents.
“Those are things that don’t seem that impactful until we’re having trouble dealing with getting food from a store because it’s shut down with no power,” he said in an interview. “It gave us a good insight into what it might look like to experience a larger-scale earthquake.”
Parkinson said the Sumner Grade Fire “opened not just our eyes, but a lot of our residents’ and a lot of people in Western Washington to the understanding that we’re not immune from a large-scale wildfire.”
Residents statewide must remain wary about fire hazards around their homes. Franz told me that on a walk through Malden after last year’s nightmare Labor Day firestorms leveled the town, it was easy to tell which homeowners had made common-sense preparations, like clearing away nearby brush and other flammable detritus.
“On every block, there was a house that was left completely untouched,” she said. “Fire just moved around it. It wasn’t luck.”
The ever-growing number of people living in the wildland-rural interface regions aren’t the only ones who need to be mindful of the imminent possibility of massive summer fires.
When the smoke arrived last summer, people in large cities were already living on COVID-19 lockdown. The long-awaited great reopening is imminent, but so is a strong chance of hazardously smoky air. Keep those N95 masks handy.